Rhode Island Flower Shops Discriminate Against Atheist Teenager

Jessica AhlquistWhat began as a victory for a teenager in a battle to remove religious icons in her school ended in dismay. 16-year-old student Jessica Ahlquist, an atheist and student at Cranston West High School, recently fought to remove a religious banner at her school. The banner (which read, “Our Heavenly Father”) hung illegally in the school violating the legal precedents that prevent schools from engaging in or promoting religious activities. She won that fight last month and the banner was taken down. To congratulate her in her effort to uphold the separation of church and state, the Freedom from Religion Foundation  attempted to send Ahlquist congratulatory flowers – a task that proved daunting since multiple vendors outright refused to accommodate their request based on “religious reasons.”

When asked about the denial of service, the organization responded by saying, “We have basic civil rights standards in our society. A business can’t shun you because you’re an atheist. You do not have the right to refuse to do business with someone based on categories and that includes religion. It’s as if they said ‘I will not deliver to a black person.’” The vendors didn’t see it that way, though. They make it out to be a case of inconvenience and potential business loss.

“I just chose not to do it. Nothing personal, it was a choice that I made. It was my right, so I did that,” one vendor said. ”I’m an independent owner and I can choose whoever I want, whenever I want.”

As it turns out, she may be wrong. In refusing to accommodate a patron based on a religious bias against that person (mainly, the fact that both the organization and the recipient are atheist-related), they all may be in violation of the law. The Freedom from Religion Foundation has filed a lawsuit against the shops claiming that “The Defendant unlawfully denied Plaintiff full and equal access to public accommodations by refusing to fulfill a flower order on the basis of religion (non-belief), in violation of Rhode Island’s general laws.”

People without law degrees and a sense of entitlement have taken to attacking the teenager furiously across internet forums and news story comment sections making grandiose claims like:

  • She’ll be praying to God when no one will serve her in her hometown
  • Businesses reserve the right to refuse service to anyone – especially her!
  • When did lack of religion constitute a religious right?

Predictably, those people making the above claims could not explain how their arguments against atheists were different from the arguments made in the Jim Crow era against African Americans. Perhaps their online “law” education didn’t cover that. The fact remains that protected classes and public accommodation laws exist for a reason – and this is one of them. Whether a person is an atheist, a lesbian, or an African American, the law says you cannot single out someone for their protected class trait and refuse service to them if you run a business (private or otherwise). The progressive movement fought for protections during the Jim Crow era, and now we’re fighting again for every other group it’s still socially acceptable to discriminate against.


Tim Peacock is the Managing Editor and founder of Peacock Panache and has worked as a civil rights advocate for over twenty years. During that time he’s worn several hats including leading on campus LGBT advocacy in the University of Missouri campus system, interning with the Colorado Civil Rights Division, and volunteering at advocacy organizations. You can learn more about him at his personal website.


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